Nine years ago this week, February 23rd, 2001, I unknowingly began the journey of a caretaker.
Just a week removed from the death of one of my heroes, Dale Earnhardt, I accompanied my Grandfather to the hospital after nearly a month of miserable, searing, daily pain at his home in Tornillo.
None of us knew what kind of ride we would all be in for on that sunny and warm Febuary afternoon, waiting for the ambulance to arrive and take him to the hospital.
My Grandmother could no longer care for him as she had in the months leading up to that fateful February day. My mother had a life of her own, which only allowed brief, daily check-ups, but even those were not sufficient. Even my Grandfather’s family, who lived just across the tracks from him, were unable to help. So it all fell to me.
My grandfather did a very good job masking his ills, but this was just too much for him to hide. The disintegration of his hips, partially due to Nazi schrapnel left deep in his tissue, partnered by an increasing lethargy was too much for all of us to handle. The next 3 and a half weeks passed quickly.
MRIs, blood tests, x-rays, consultations and finally a release order to go home, with pain medications. Hospice care and aggresive Prostate cancer. On March 20th, 2001, cancer takes my Grandfather, laying in his bed, surrounded by those who loved him the most and knew him the best.
Aside from my responsibilities as a husband and father of 3 young children, on that night, I became the eldest male in my family and a caretaker.
I spent the next year selling and bartering 13 cars and hundreds of parts, boxing 50 years of memories and condensing the leftovers into my mother’s home. But it was only the start.
The next few years found me running two households: mine and my mother’s. Setting up cable and cell phones, scheduling car maintenance and selling the property that my grandmother never wanted to set foot in again. Falling into a daily routine that would have both my mother and grandmother spending far more time at my home, than their house.
A couple of years later, amid the Birthdays, holidays, arguements and tears, my paternal Grandfather calls and says the doctors tell him he’s not long for this world. He adds, “pay for my funeral with my Discover Card, let them figure out how to find me.” Less than 6 months later, Cancer takes my paternal Grandfather, in his bed, surrounded by those who love him and knew him best.
More mourning and a slow return to life. The pattern resumes, set to be repeated.
One day in October of ’07, my mother notices a lump on her neck. By January 2007 she can’t breathe and is in the ER at Del Sol. Three weeks later, I’m scheduling her funeral services and getting my Grandmother her first home, the first time she’s been on her own since 1939.
The next two years go even quicker than the previous 5. First, packing 2 lifetimes of photos, furnature and memories into a new aparment and then buying Ensure, mac-n-cheese, and Bayer Heart-smart asprin every week. Doctor’s appointments, denture cleaning, paying bills for my household and her household. Hiring a home healthcare worker, weekdays driving her to daycare and weekends to the post office.
But we still have kid’s and cousin’s birthdays, holidays, awards assemblies, t-ball and basketball games. The pattern resumes, set to be repeated.
Then, somewhere amid all the Grandma visits and early morning breakfasts, she’s got Alzheimers and the doctor says as long as she stays healthy, it’s still downhill, but not too immediate. Make sure the caregiver knows and make sure you don’t make too many sudden changes.
And then the call. The one Saturday morning I sleep in, I swear the buzz of my cellphone felt and sounded different.
‘Chris, Mary just got to your grandmother’s house…she found her on the floor…don’t know how long she’s been there.’
The familiar rush of the ambulance, followed by the ER, and tests, consultations, doctors and nurses. “This is not going to end well,” I tell myself, “the family history always fades quickly under these circumstances.”
And it does just that. After only 10 days in the hospital, my Grandmother joins the rest of my family in their eternal rest. And for the final time, I take a lifetime of memories and belongings, pack them away, turn in keys and close the door.
So it seems that I have the Caretaker’s final burden: Freedom.
In the span of nine years, I’m still a husband and the father of 3 growing children. I tell myself “I’m no longer a caretaker.” I think to myself “The people I grew up with, the people that nurtured and raised me, that angered and delighted me are all dead and gone…and I have nothing.”
It’s a daily fight, and it sneaks up on me. I tear up at the grocery store at the sight of a 6-pack of Ensure or a brass-colored box of Kleenex (Grandma’s favorite.) I reflexively pick up the phone to alert my mom of my next appearance on TV. I run into a mechanical problem, and there are my Grandfather’s tools, but no helping hand.
But the rush is over, and I have the time – my time – and schedule back, and I feel guilty. Deep, soaking guilt. “I should have woken up earlier…should have called one more time.”
I suppose there should be a ‘happy ending’ to all this. I’ve tried to think through the guilt and second-guessing, but there is no one answer as to how you’re supposed to feel now that the job is done.
And then, it just happens.
I water the lawn and smile because Grandpa Tony let me hold the hose once; I hear Benny Goodman and think about the time Grandma taught me how to dance and I smile; I wind up the snow globe that Mom gave as a first gift to my first born and remember her smile…and I smile.
I now have my family, the ones who accompanied my on this journey and the ones whose time was cut back because of the things I had to do. And they are the ones who kept me sane during this entire time. Now I will nurture them and give them the tools to be good caretakers when the times comes.
And they’re the ones I’m going to go ride a bike with now.